Even as NBA positions blur together, the notice paid to measurables and athletic testing at the NBA Draft Combine remains high. For nearly every prospect grading out taller, lankier, or quicker than expected can erase all sorts of questions about a disappointing season. Conversely, even the most productive players get knocked for being too short, too slow, or too stuck to the ground.
Kentucky center Nerlens Noel didn't set the college basketball world on fire like his predecessor Anthony Davis, but he was still quite good--one of the best in the NCAA, in fact. Before an ill-fated chasedown block left him with a torn-ACL and made him the centerpiece of a renewed debate on the NBA's age minimum, Noel was regarded as a top candidate for the Naismith Player of the Year Award and the prohibitive favorite to be selected first overall in the upcoming NBA draft. The injury slowed the hype train a bit, but even with Noel expected to be shelved for the first few months of the season he was still the favorite to be the first pick.
Still in the early stages of the recovery process, Noel didn't take part in any of the workouts or organized competitive activities at the combine, but his measurements still garnered significant attention. His standing reach (still the most important pure measurement for a center) was still very good, and his wingspan was solid. But nearly every scout, assistant, or GM in attendance was distressed by Noel's weight: he tipped the scales at just 206 lbs., barely higher than shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
"Needs to add strength" shows up so frequently in prospect profiles it's basically an in-joke in draft analysis at this point. With one-and-done prospects dominating the draft in recent years, it's becoming increasingly rare to see an incoming rookie with an "NBA-ready" physique, especially big men. There's no reason to think Noel, still just 19 years old, won't put on quite a bit of muscle once he gets on board with an NBA strength training program. In addition, Noel says he played up around 225 lbs. before the injury took him off his feet. But even that figure leaves him well below many of the top centers in the NBA:
Marc Gasol won Defensive Player of the Year for the Memphis Grizzlies. He's listed at 265 lbs. Pacers center Roy Hibbert is 280 lbs. Dwight Howard is 260 lbs. From Andrew Bogut to DeMarcus Cousins, you'll be hard-pressed to find a center who isn't 40 lbs. heavier than Noel's targeted weight. Even Tyson Chandler, always noted for his slender body, is 240 lbs.
There seems little doubt that Noel will initially struggle to deal with the size he'll face night after night in the NBA. The concern for many team officials is whether he'll eventually be able to shake that disadvantage. Can Noel succeed if he might always be undersized? Is that risk worth taking first overall? Some teams aren't so sure anymore.
There may be hope for Noel yet, and many NBA writers have already noticed it: His name is
Larry Sanders LARRY SANDERS!
First, the obvious discrepancy: Sanders weighed 222 pounds at the 2010 NBA Draft Combine, quite a bit higher than Noel's eye-popping figure. But he was still right near the bottom of all the center prospects in the 2010 draft (heck, he was often projected as a power forward), many of whom were drafted in the top ten. Beyond that, however, similarities become much more abundant. Both players possessed excellent shot-blocking instincts in college and had great athleticism. Both sport(ed) evolving offensive games, and Noel is likely farther along than Sanders was when he was drafted. Most importantly, like Sanders, Noel will likely be drafted on the back of his NBA-ready defensive ability, which is where the weight issue really comes into question (Ever notice how weight is rarely brought up as with regard to a prospect's offensive game, unless it's a positive? Strange trend.).
In the 2012-2013 season, Sanders emerged as an elite defensive center in the NBA, even if award season brought little acknowledgement of the fact. He took advantage (in a good way) of the fact that a center can succeed in the NBA today if he can do 2 things: Protect the rim, and stay on the court long enough to make that protection worth something. Thanks to his shot-blocking, Sanders has always been pretty good at the first part, but it took him 3 seasons to curb his excessive fouling enough to play a significant number of minutes and break into the upper echelon of interior defenders.
What's notable is that his physique doesn't seem to have changed significantly, at least not to the point where his defensive improvement was an obvious beneficiary of added bulk. Sanders learned to use his tremendous length and agility, plus smarter positioning, to shut down some of the best post scorers in the NBA and anchor an above-average defense that was utterly awful without him. Naturally, the biggest and best pivots in the league still gave him trouble, but the same could be said for nearly every one of his contemporaries. Sanders' success despite his smallish frame hardly establishes a pattern. It does, however, invalidate any rule saying that skinny big guys can't make it in the NBA.
A little hiccup in common perception is that length, not girth, might be the most valuable physical tool in a defender's arsenal, be he an interior or perimeter stopper. That's good news for Noel, whose expansive measurements are just a bit smaller than Sanders despite being about an inch taller. Perhaps even more encouraging is that Noel averaged 1.2 fewer fouls per 40 minutes than Sanders during each's pre-draft seasons. Noel may already be more refined on defense than Sanders was coming into the league, despite his age. That he played for a very good coach at the NBA Production Facility of Kentucky can't hurt either.
One more player worth mentioning: Joakim Noah weighed 223 pounds prior to the 2007 draft and has become one of the top centers in the game. But Noah was widely regarded as a more skilled player coming in than either Sanders or Noel and might be powered by a small chest-mounted Arc Reactor, so he's not a great comparison. I'd also contend that Sanders is a slightly better overall defender than Noah at the moment, so why not set your sights high, Mr. Nerlens' Agent?
The question remains whether Noel's conspicuous slenderness renders him unworthy of the top spot in his draft class. Sanders would unquestionably rise into the middle of the lottery in a redraft of the 2010 class, but there are still a number of other players ahead of him. Noel is viewed as a higher-ceiling player than Sanders was around draft time, which apparently couples with a reputedly weak class to make him the top choice almost by default. Identifying Larry Sanders as a best-or-worse-case scenario for Noel is a contrived exercise, but ask yourself this: knowing what you know about Sanders today, where would he rank in the 2013 draft class?